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Rainbow washing: What is it and why it needs to stop

It’s almost the end of June and the world seems to be filled with rainbow-colored flags. The retail industry is no stranger to rainbow flags. You can see them in almost every store and even on various products from well-known brands. But where’s the line between real LGBTQ+ support and marketing? 

In this article, we are going to focus on a controversial topic: rainbow washing. We’ll figure out what it means and how it can negatively impact retailers, brands, and consumers. 

What is rainbow washing?

When you want to promote your products and sell more, like any other business, you need to focus on understanding your customers and their needs. No matter who your customers are, you need to show support and get involved in social issues. This is what consumers want. Statistics show that 70% of consumers say it’s important for brands to take a stand on social and political issues.

However, there’s a difference between showing support and advertising. When it comes to supporting the LGBTQ+ community, there are a lot of brands and retailers that took a stand and showed real support. And there were also brands that used this month just for advertising. 

Rainbow washing is falsely advertising your progressive support for the LGBTQ+ community by displaying rainbow colors but with a minimum of effort or pragmatic result. In order words, businesses use the Pride flag just to improve their image. Unfortunately, just like greenwashing, rainbow washing is a common practice. 

Inclusive marketing or just a way to raise brand awareness

In recent years, there have been some changes in most industries. Businesses no longer focus on the majority and are becoming more inclusive. 

Inclusive marketing is a great way to support minorities of any kind. Apart from this, inclusive marketing makes all customers feel seen and heard. Retailers and brands can benefit from being inclusive because they can turn regular customers into loyal ones. 

However, simply advertising your brand and products are being inclusive is not enough. These initiatives need to have an impact on the real world. Showing support to minority groups, like the LGBTQ+ community needs to be much more than using a certain color scheme for a month every year.

Just like James mentioned, brands and retailers need to be aware of the negative impact of rainbow washing.

“It is impossible to miss that many brands have recently displayed the imagery to signal their support for LBBTQ+ issues. Just as with "greenwashing" on environmental issues, the use of the rainbow symbolism may or may not reflect actual commitment to meaningful good acts.

Consumers of all orientations are challenged to distinguish what's real from what's merely wallpaper with the right color scheme. While it's OK to display the rainbow on your logo (as many companies have this month) as a statement of solidarity, brands that do this risk being lumped together with the unrepentant rainbow-washers.

So tread carefully there. Opt for substance over symbolism. Actions speak louder than rainbows.”

James Tenser, President at VSN Media

Why brands need to avoid rainbow washing 

Rainbow washing, just like greenwashing can have a negative impact on your brand. Why? Because customers don’t like being lied to. It might be better not to take a stand regarding the LGBTQ+ community than to display the rainbow flag once a year with no real support. 

Here are just a few things that can happen when practicing rainbow washing:

  • Negative impact on the image of your brand
  • Risk losing loyal customers
  • Negative impact on sales

 

Source: AlixPartners

Donating to anti-LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations, having strong anti-LGBTQ+ advocacy, or targeting marketing to the LGBTQ+ community during Pride Month doesn’t have a great impact on sales. However, showing real support can. 

How to avoid rainbow washing

Here are a few things that retailers and brands can do to show real support, just like these grocery retailers did. 

  1. LGBTQ+ marketing is part of your overall marketing strategy


    Customers notice when brands abruptly and obsessively try to market to minority groups. It’s obvious and it can have the opposite effect. Instead, if you want to show that you support the community, you should include these initiatives in your overall marketing strategy. 

  2. Support is year-round, not just in June


    While it is great to show support in June, during Pride month, brands and retailers should limit to one month per year. Supporting a community happens all year, every year, not just one month per year when everybody does it. 

  3. Don’t focus only on your customers


    Employees who are part of the LGBTQ+ community should also feel understood and supported. Brands can show their support by being inclusive and by hiring people regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, or nationality. 

During this month, avoid rainbow washing and focus on initiatives that can really help this community. As James Tenser said, “Actions speak louder than rainbows.

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